Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy lived in a time that had long passed before most were born, and was inspired by a society that, for the most part, no longer exists. His poems focus on events long past and on issues that are no longer relevant. And yet, so many of his poems ring true today, and his themes remain relevant long after his unfortunate passing. Drummer Hodge is one such poem, a story about events long passed that are still worth thinking about — because war is an unfortunate reality even now. Hardy had a way of writing that captured the powerful emotions and heartbreaking realities of those wars from an entirely different perspective. Hardy’s writing is relevant and powerful, and his story of Drummer Hodge is one that takes on many themes and perspectives in only a few short verses.

 

Drummer Hodge Analysis

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest

Uncoffined — just as found:

His landmark is a kopje-crest

That breaks the veldt around:

And foreign constellations west

Each night above his mound.

There’s a casual nonchalance that starts off this poem that immediately seems out of place. When a person is put “to rest,” it is generally an indication that they’ve died; one doesn’t “throw in” a person to their grave generally speaking, it is done respectfully and typically mournfully. So immediately the reader knows that this isn’t a typical circumstance being portrayed. The story goes on to note that there is no coffin or burial; Hodge is buried as he was found. A kopje is a small hill that marks an otherwise flat landscape. This is his landmark — usually a landmark on the site of a deceased individual is a tombstone or grave marker. Hodge has no stone; he has the open, unfamiliar sky, and a small hill, and that’s all he has. He is simply thrown to the ground and buried.

A veldt or veld is a rural landscape unique to Southern Africa. Since “Drummer” is capitalized in the verse, it is likely that it is a title; this, combined with the note that Hodge is being buried suggests that he had been filling the role of a war drummer in life, a popular military position that used drums for communication on battlefields. So we can surmise that Hodge was a military drummer who died in South Africa during a war.

The ABAB rhyming pattern here persists throughout Drummer Hodge, and works well, especially to the theme of war drumming; the rigid verse structure and enforced syllable count create a kind of beat to the poem that makes sense with the idea of a drum.

Young Hodge the drummer never knew —

Fresh from his Wessex home —

The meaning of the broad Karoo,

The Bush, the dusty loam,

And why uprose to nightly view

Strange stars amid the gloam.

From this verse, we are told that Hodge lived in Wessex, and the reference to the Karoo further implies the presence of these soldiers in South Africa suggests that Hodge was fighting in the Second Boer War. Over the course of the war, the United Kingdom fought against the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, both of whom were defeated and annexed into the British Empire.

The primary focus of this verse of Drummer Hodge, however, is the note that Hodge was an outsider. He never knew the meanings behind things like the Karoo (a notable semi-desert region of South Africa), or the patterns of the stars above the African plain. None of this was important to Hodge; he was simply there to wage war. He was a stranger, and this adds a great deal of context to Hardy’s vision of the Second Boer War, because this is a noteworthy element of Hodge’s last days — his isolation. Hodge is young, and somewhat ignorant as well. He was a patriot, in the sense that it didn’t matter to him who he was defending his country from, only that he was defending his country.

Yet portion of that unknown plain

Will Hodge for ever be;

His homely Northern breast and brain

Grow to some Southern tree,

And strange-eyed constellations reign

His stars eternally.

What’s interesting about the aforementioned note of ignorance is that Hodge is now forever a part of the African plain. His death and burial in the Karoo means that, despite its inhospitable landscape and foreign concepts, it is now his resting place forever (as he is in an unmarked grave, it is unlikely he will be found and returned home). The second and third lines of this final verse make reference to the decomposition of his body, suggesting that elements of Hodge will, quite literally, become a part of the plain, through the fertilization process that eventually aids the growth of a tree. Above his body, the strange stars that form unrecognized constellations look down on the place he died forevermore. Hodge is a part of South Africa now, and it is a sad ending for the poem, but also serves to give the poem a lasting impression, and questions the nature of belonging.

For Drummer Hodge, South Africa was a foreign nation to be invaded and annexed. He knew nothing of the customs, of the traditions, or of the landscapes of South Africa. He was, as far as this poem can tell us, a proud member of the United Kingdom, who spent his final days crossing the deserts of a foreign land that would become his resting place forever. Hodge “belonged” to the United Kingdom, but gave his body to an African country, which never let it go.

What’s interesting about this poem is the lack of a clear narrator. As Hodge is dead before the poem begins, his perspective is missing, which leads to a number of questions — did he feel his sacrifice was worth it? Would he rather have never left his home? Why was he fighting the war to begin with, what were his reasons? By removing this perspective, Thomas Hardy leaves the poem intentionally vague, challenging the reader to contemplate their own sense of belonging instead. In this, the poem is effective and interesting, shedding light on a war older than any living person in a way that could easily be contemplated by any modern war.

 

Historical Context

Thomas Hardy first published Drummer Hodge in 1899, during the Second Boer War, and after the First Boer War had concluded. Many of Hardy’s poems take on the perspective of anonymous soldiers fighting primarily in the Boer Wars or in the First World War, for which he was still alive.

Over 20,000 British soldiers were killed in the Second Boer War. Over 900 went missing and were never found — and it is for these soldiers that Drummer Hodge is most evocative.

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